Maghreb-Ukraine (2). Tunisia With its Hands Tied, Public Opinion Favourable to Russia

The Maghreb countries want to avoid taking sides in the Ukraine war. In our first article, we looked at the Algerian and Moroccan positions. Here we will analyse Tunisia’s policy and the state of public opinion in the region where anti-Western feelings benefit Russia.

Kremlin, 20 February 2020. Tarek Ben Salem, Tunisian ambassador, presents his credentials to Vladimir Putin, in the presence of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Among the three countries of central Maghreb, Tunisia appears to be the one which has the least room for manoeuvre regarding the war in Ukraine. By voting in favour of the UN resolution condemning the Russian use of force in Ukraine (2 March) Tunisia began by joining the Western camp. A decision which was not unanimously approved by the country’s diplomats, accustomed to negotiating for the best of its interests.“We should have waited, stalled, the way other African countries did, before taking a stand like that. We have as much to lose with the Russians as with the West,” a former minister said, who would have preferred an abstention or not taking part in the vote like Morocco. But the country’s financial and economic difficulties, which have been piling up since 2011, not to mention the political uncertainties that have prevailed since President Kais Saied’s power grab on 25 July 2021, account to a considerable extent for Tunisia’s equivocations. A frailty which exposes the country to outside pressures and fuels rumours about the interventions of this or that foreign capital.

Two votes against Russia? For many Tunisians the explication is obvious: the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), at a time when the country can hardly make ends meet, made such a gesture unavoidable. More so as the USA has Tunisia in its sights. In September, US State Department official Ned Price appealed to Tunisian President Kais Saied to lead a “transparent and inclusive” reform process. On 27 April, after Antony Blinken had ostentatiously snubbed Tunisia on his tour of the Maghreb, Washington decided to rub it in. State Department spokesperson, Ned Price declared that the United States "is deeply concerned by the Tunisian President’s decision to unilaterally restructure Tunisia’s independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) and that his country “has consistently communicated to Tunisian leaders the importance of upholding the independence of key democratic institutions and ensuring Tunisia’s return to democratic governance”. Considering the US influence on the IMF board of directors, we can easily understand why the Tunisian government had no wish to call attention to itself in the Russo-Ukrainian affair.

A real-fake letter signed Kais Saied

How then are we to explain Tunisia’s abstention when it came to voting on the decision to expel Russia from UN Human Rights Council? It is thought that here too foreign pressures are involved. Not from Russia where the authorities do not seem to attach much importance to Tunis, but from neighbouring Algeria on whose financial support President Saied is counting a great deal. For Algiers, convincing Tunis to take a more balanced position constituted a demonstration of its influence in the region and thus increase its credit vis-à-vis Moscow. In mid-March, Tunisian social networks relayed a copy of a hand-written letter supposedly sent by Kais Saied to his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, asking him to plead Tunisia’s cause with the Russians, explaining that his diplomats had no other choice but to vote in favour of March 2 resolution. An obligation dictated by Western pressures and the IMF’s “gangster-like” behaviour.

The Carthage (presidential) Palace immediately denounced the letter as a fake and called for an investigation into the breach of national security. “It is almost certainly a fake,”our former minister assured us, but immediately corrected his words with,“or rather a real fake”: i.e. an obvious forgery, but clearly a useful one since at the end of the day it made it possible to send the following message to Tunisian public opinion and foreign capitals, especially Algiers and Moscow: Tunisia would like to have voted differently but it cannot shake off Western pressures. In the meantime, officials are saying that Kais Saied will soon be travelling to Moscow. When? No date has been set but the Tunisian ambassador in Moscow has stated that the visit will take place “On the occasion of the expected participation of a Tunisian astronaut in a space mission which will take off from Russia for the international space station.”

While Tunis must absolutely make a deal with the IMF to balance its budget, the economic fallout from the Russo-Ukrainian war is far from negligible. As with Algeria and Morocco, the scales tend to tip towards Moscow, for it provides hydrocarbons and petrochemical products which Tunisia badly needs, while Ukraine supplies mostly grain. Wheat imports from the Black Sea are suspended now and at first Tunisian authorities were relying on India, but the heat wave that prevails there has already destroyed part of the harvest. Europe and France could offer a solution for the supply of grain and help stave off the risk of bread riots which worries many Tunisians who draw a parallel with the last years of the twentieth century. It remains to be seen whether these prospective deliveries would have political conditions attached, such as an obligation to adopt sanctions against Russia.

A prospect not to the liking of the local tourist industry, hard hit by the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic and which fears that the land border may not be opened again in time to let those millions of Algerians, accustomed to spending their holidays in Tunisia, return this summer.

They are similarly worried about Russian tourists. Until the end of April, hotel owners still hoped that 600 000 of these would save their summer, but now that Russia has been excluded from the payment network Society for Worldwide Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT)1 they would have to use the MIR card2 payment system, managed by the Central Bank of Russia., at the risk of violating the sanctions against Russia declared by the EU and above all by the USA.

Dismissing both sides back-to-back

While the Maghrebi governments are careful not to come out clearly in favour of either Russia or Ukraine and its Western backers, their public opinions seem far less inclined to beating about the bush. With a few noteworthy exceptions, public demonstrations in favour of Kiev are few and far between. Often enough, both belligerents are dismissed back-to-back. The rhetoric heard or read invariably winds up denouncing the “policy of double standards”. Why should we be exercised about the invasion of Ukraine when the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was never condemned by the international community, and its instigators, George W. Bush and his clique of neoconservatives have never been brought to trial? And what about the Palestinians, whose rights are still being trampled underfoot by the Israeli occupiers. The peoples of the Maghreb and the Mashreq have a long memory. They have not forgotten the false promises of George Bush senior that a “new world order” would follow the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War, nor have they forgotten how the object and purpose of a UN resolution were diverted to bring down Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011.

Russia adorned with every virtue

The war in Ukraine acts as a giveaway. It shows the real face of a popular opinion which makes no effort to hide its ressentiment towards a West who likes to give lessons and use double speak, including when it welcomes Ukrainian refugees with open arms and turns away Syrians, Afghans, Kurds, and Somalians and even sends some back to Rwanda. It is true that polls are few not to say inexistent, but an examination of what is posted and shared, in Arabic and French, on the main social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, can be informative. Often the thesis that Russia is fighting “Nazis” is repeated to justify the invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s historical arguments, claiming that the country has never existed as such are often put forth. Russia is often adorned with every virtue. Thus the crimes of its army during the two wars in Chechnya, a Muslim territory, are forgotten altogether or rewritten as part of the necessary struggle against jihadism.

The same argumentation is invoked regarding the situation in Syria, stressing above all the responsibility of the United States and Europe. And what of the Russian war crimes at Boutcha? An invention of the Western media, already guilty of lying about the situation in Aleppo, accusing the Russians of everything bad… And who is responsible for the present chaos? In Syria as in Ukraine, only NATO is to blame, pulling the strings behind the scenes and obliging the Russians to make their move, in legitimate self-defence. These net surfers never fail to remind us of who destroyed Libya, still a divided country and prey to the law of militias and factions. “When a war breaks out somewhere, I check to see if NATO is involved. If so, I immediately come out in favour of the other side.” There are also variants of this argument: high-profile French “intellectuals” like Bernard-Henri Lévy, accused of supporting the wrong side and always justifying everything NATO does.

Ever since it became independent, Ukraine has been so busy trying to get on good terms with the European Union and worried about its hectic relations with Russia that it has tended to neglect the Maghreb and more generally the Arab World, except for its more prosperous citizens fascinated with Dubai and to a lesser extent with the tourist resorts at Sharm El-Sheikh in the Sinai. As for Putin’s Russia, its image is that of a major opponent of a Western world which has so much to answer for. No matter if it does not really represent a political alternative, as the defunct Soviet Union once did. No matter either that the “Russian way of life” is not very attractive, even if several hundred Maghrebi students have enrolled in Russian universities for lack of opportunities elsewhere: what matters, as a journalist revealed on Radio Tunis (23 March) is that the West is up against a powerful rival that does not let itself be intimidated.

An appeal against the grain

Nor are the leaders of the three Maghreb countries trying to change this way of seeing things. Beyond realpolitik, you will not find an iota of empathy for the Ukrainian people in their rhetoric and above all the Russian invasion is never unequivocally condemned. Were it to be, this would in fact only bolster pro-Russian feelings among the people! In this context, standing up for the Ukrainians is not an easy matter. Since mid-April an appeal signed by several Arab journalists and intellectuals has been circulating in several languages calling for “support for the Ukrainians without reservation or calculation”.3 It contains these words:

We are aware of the overwhelming responsibility of the Western powers, small and great, in the devastation of our world. We have denounced the wars waged by them to guarantee the longevity of their domination over vast regions, including our own, and condemned their support of indefensible dictatorships to protect their interests. We have seen through their selective use of the values they claim to defend, letting die on their doorsteps refugees from the Global South while welcoming “their own” with open arms. But we must not fight the wrong battle. All the peoples demanding freedom for themselves, who believe that citizens have the right to choose their rulers and reject tyranny should side today with the Ukrainians. Freedom must be defended everywhere.4

This text was widely criticised on the social networks, some of its detractors going so far as to accuse it of being pro-NATO propaganda: “That manifesto is against the tide of public opinion which is predominantly favourable to Russia” university professor Al Bensaad, one of its authors, admits. And he adds: “That too is having a sense of responsibility.”

1EDITOR’S NOTE: A Belgian cooperative firm providing services related to the execution of financial transactions and payments between banks worldwide. Its principal function is to serve as the main messaging network through which international payments are initiated.

2EDITOR’S NOTE: System of payment by card managed by the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. Originally reserved for domestic use, it has become an international card.

3The author of this article signed this appeal but was not one of its authors.